Let's face it there are hundreds of tutorials available on the web explaining what composition means in a photograph and how to achieve a well composed image. We've heard the term "rule of thirds" so many times (you can learn more about that here). So rather than go over that yet again, I will be sharing with you tips on not just creating one well composed image, but how to capture a whole set of images, in a about a standard one hour photo shoot.
Simply put, composition is the way elements are arranged in a photograph. Where do your eyes go when looking at an image? Why do they go to that particular spot? I'm personally not a fan of using the word "rules", so instead I am covering a variety of composition "ideas" to give you a well rounded gallery of images.
Many photographers dismiss the simple centered portrait, deeming it too boring or basic. But the centered, everyone smiling and looking at the camera image is what I like to call "the money shot". Even those clients who say they want mostly lifestyle photos, almost always end up purchasing this type of shot, whether it's for their holiday cards, or framed and up on grandma's wall, this is the quintessential, simply perfect family picture.
Some tips for a great centered portrait:
Fill the frame, keep backgrounds simple
Watch limb chops never chop at joints, and if you do need to crop, do it at the thigh or mid calf, and try to keep arms and hands in! Never chop off someone's feet or hands at the wrist.
Make sure everyone is touching in some way nothing worse than a cold, impersonal portrait where it looks like nobody likes each other!
When posing families or small groups, create a triangle. Your eyes will immediately be drawn up to your subject's smiling faces.
We've all come across that close up portrait that has just stopped us in our tracks, so much so that we can't take our eyes off of it. How can something so seemingly simple, be so captivating? The close up portrait is definitely one of my favorite shots, I am a sucker for eyes. Use the rule of thirds, place your subjects eyes in the top third of the frame.
Capture your subject in his/her most relaxed state, for more authentic facial expressions. One way to do this is use a longer lens this allows you to stay further away, because we all know having a giant camera lens up close in your face can be pretty unnerving! My 2 must have lenses for portraits are the 85mm or the 70-200mm (AKA THE BEAST). Have something for your subject to lean on, or hold. This will always give them a sense of security, which automatically makes them more relaxed.
Change your POV (point of view). Shoot from above photographing your subject from a higher spot is always flattering, just watch out for harsh lighting (or worse, your own shadow). I prefer this type of shot in open shade, or indoors for the most even light on your subject. Don't forget about the rule of thirds!
Our eyes are naturally drawn along lines. By using lines in your photo composition, you pull the viewer into your image, and right to your subject. Your lines can be a simple dirt road, a family on a bridge, even footprints in the sand. During your photo session, be on the lookout for spots to use leading lines in your composition they are everywhere! (To learn more about leading lines, check out this blog post)
Negative space is defined as the space around your subject, or a space mostly devoid of subject matter. When composing an image, we work with three elements the frame, the subject (or positive space), and the negative space. I find it slightly ironic this type of composition is penned as "negative", since it's another one of my favorites and the space around your subject can be anything but. Notice here even though I have plenty of negative space around my subject, and there is no question as to where your eyes are supposed to go, the center weighted composition lacks impact.
Now here, the family is positioned using the rule of thirds, look at how much more balanced and visually striking the photo becomes!
For a perfectly balanced, negative space image:
Your negative space should occupy 2/3 of the image, the subject about 1/3.
Negative space doesn't need to be empty! It shouldn't, however, contain items that deter from your subject.
Use a larger aperture on your subject, nicely blurring your negative space.
Frame your subject with the negative space, use the rule of thirds, and try to make sure your subject is not facing away from the negative space, but toward it.
This is one of the easiest compositions to learn, since every image has positive and negative space! Experiment with different crops in post to train your eye to see a balanced negative space photograph.
I am blessed to live in the beautiful city of Santa Barbara, California and have many clients that travel here for vacation and want a photo session that encompasses the stunning backdrop of beaches, mountains and all the town has to offer. So using secondary interest in images is something I do quite a lot of, since my subjects want to have photos that aren't just "anytown, USA", but have specific landmarks and backgrounds that are quintessentially local. When out on location during a photo session, I am always looking around, being aware of my surroundings and trying to find that perfect spot to capture my subject with a great Santa Barbara backdrop. This is a shot from a beach session, during a candid moment of Dad and son running around having a good time. Notice by using leading lines, and the rule of thirds, the sky, water, and pier behind accentuate the action of my subjects, rather than competing with it.
And in these images, a graduating senior wanted to remember her college town with her photo session done on and around campus from the sea of bicycles, to a colorful mural, every image includes secondary interest from her surroundings.
Make your primary and secondary elements in this type of composition flow naturally. Watch the placement of your subject so the secondary element accentuates the subject, rather than distracts from it. Frame your subject. Look for photo session locations that will tell a story.
Composition and the lifestyle session
You're shooting a lifestyle photo session. You are thinking of your camera settings, capturing natural expressions and interactions, the lighting, making your subject feel comfortable. Now throw in worrying about composition it seems almost impossible to end up with a perfect set of lifestyle images! Now don't get me wrong I strongly believe rules are made to be broken, and if I catch that amazing candid moment, but accidentally chop off a finger, you bet I am still including it in a gallery. Tiny mistakes in your composition should never overrule a photo with a connection that can't be recreated, as most lifestyle images are. However, using some of the above tips should also apply to a more candid style of photography.
The positioning of your subjects, their body language and facial expressions should tell a story. One way to do this is have everyone sit or stand together, similar to as if you are doing a simple centered portrait (see number 1), expect instead of having them look at the camera and smile, ask them to look at their neighbor. This always results in laughs because nobody knows which neighbor to look at. You can also ask the child to kiss Mom or Dad, tickle each other, or say a funny word. While doing this keep your centered composition.
Use lighting to make a composition stronger. This is the beauty of lifestyle images they can capture lovely family interaction, without necessarily even seeing the subject's face. Use backlighting and silhouettes to create compelling storytelling images. Notice that while these photos aren't so much "posed", they still follow the rules of composition, whether it be using negative space, or the rule of thirds.
Bring along the fur babies. Nothing makes someone relax more than the presence of the family pet (ok most family pets). So next time you plan a lifestyle session tell them to bring them along! Use animals to put your subject at ease, especially for photo sessions at home. With animals, "anything goes" so set up your shot normally, then be prepared to capture what happens naturally.
TAKE A STEP BACK!
Ok we all know that the one shot that catches that priceless family moment will be the one that they order huge on canvas, right? But what happens when you've shot too close, and there is NO WAY you can get that canvas wrapped without completely cropping out super important parts of the image? UGG! We have all been there. The way to avoid this is simply take several steps back before shooting, even when shooting a closeup. If you're a closeshooter by nature, invest in a slightly wider angle lens to help combat the problem. I highly recommend a 35mm for lifestyle photos it's my alltime favorite for getting the big picture, without the distortion a wider lens can cause. Especially now with most pro DSLR cameras having such giant file sizes, it is MUCH easier to crop in closer during post production, rather than needing more space around your subject (and having it be too late!).
The one thing to remember about photo composition, it CAN be learned! Ask yourself next time when at a session, or just shooting for yourself
1. Will the image tell a story?
2. Will the viewer's eyes know where to go through the photograph?
3. WHY does the viewer's eyes go to one area of the image?
4. Is the photo interesting?
5. Did I chop off hands or feet?
6. Did I use the rule of thirds? If not, how would doing so make the image more compelling?
7. Does the image have movement? Or is it static, and boring?
8. Is there an appropriate balance of negative and positive space?
WEEK 13 CHALLENGE: This week your challenge is to use Jen's amazing tips to create some images with interesting compositions. Use the ideas above and ask yourself her list of questions to make sure that your image is strong compositionally. Go like the Kensie M Photography Facebook Page and post your favorite from the week there! We can’t wait to see what you are working on. And remember we love questions, so feel free to post them in the comments section!
Jen is owner/photographer of Z's the Day Photography in Santa Barbara, CA, where she was born and raised, and lives with her husband and young son, the "Z" in Z's the Day. Jen shoots in a relaxed, fresh and timeless style, encompassing the beautiful locations Santa Barbara has to offer. When not shooting, Jen can be found at the gym, in the kitchen, or at the pet hospital where she also works part time. You can check out more of Jen's work here and be sure and go "like" her Facebook page here.